The Howard League for Penal Reform


Today the Chief Inspector of Prisons published another report on the treatment of children and young people in Feltham prison.

The legal team at the Howard League has dealt with calls for help relating to 100 children and young people in Feltham in the last twelve months. Our experience of working with boys in Feltham is that it is a dangerous place for children, that the jail struggles to keep children safe and that it is failing in this most basic of responsibilities. The inspection report pretty much supports this view, only saying that staff are doing their best.

Boys have indeed told us about staff who are helpful and kind. One boy who suffered from epilepsy told us how staff helped him and had his cell adapted.

Yet, we have had far too many calls about lack of safety and the risk of violence young people suffer. Violence appears to be a fact of daily life. We have worked with children who purposefully misbehave so that they will be put into segregation away from the violence they fear.

Putting children into solitary confinement appears to be the management tool deployed in an attempt to contain the violence. Some children are put through the formal disciplinary procedures but others are locked in their cells without due process and often no understanding of what is happening to them and why.

We know about:

A 17-year-old who was segregated for eight days, being let out of his cell for only 30 minutes a day. He told our staff he didn’t know why he was being held in solitary and he was sinking into depression.

A 17-year-old locked in his cell with no contact with any other young person, and with no idea of what he had to do to get back to a normal regime.

A 17-year-old locked in his cell for two weeks and only allowed out for 30 minutes a day to have a shower and make one phone call. He had no education and told our lawyers he was getting very depressed.

We were so concerned about one 17-year-old who was routinely segregated for long periods that we referred the case to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

My legal director and I are meeting the Chair of Hounslow Safeguarding Children Board on Friday. The Howard League was so worried by the use of solitary confinement and physical restraint on children that we asked the Board to conduct an inquiry.

The bottom line is that children are not safe in Feltham. The courts must stop sending children to a place where they are at significant and imminent risk of violence.

November 24, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Inside prisons, Prisons, Uncategorized

Further concerns about probation privatisation

Since the public probation service was broken up and a large part handed to 21 private companies, the Probation Inspectorate has looked at how the service is developing.

HMI Probation published a report titled Transforming Rehabilitation – Early Implementation 3: an Independent Inspection of the Arrangements for Offender Supervision yesterday. The report relates to findings from inspections undertaken between March and May 2015. Inspectors focused on work undertaken at the point of sentence and allocation by the National Probation Service (NPS), work undertaken by the Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the NPS to manage offenders, and the interfaces between the two organisations in respect of enforcement and risk review.

There are problems with communication, risk assessment, sentence planning, record keeping and training. Most of the concerns relate to the CRCs. Some are very serious, concerning the protection of children and victims.

Quite a lot of the report is technical but it is important because if the systems fail, people can get hurt, and hurt very badly.

The new structure is incredibly complex, bureaucratic and in some areas, downright impenetrable. This does not help when the public or victims want to know how people who have harmed them are being managed.

The Inspectorate found that in several instances performance had deteriorated since the previous early implementation inspection (so the excuse that everything is bedding in and will only get better will not wash)

I have drawn on some of the key findings. It makes grim reading.

Key concerns

  • Communication between the National Probation Service and the Community Rehabilitation Companies was improving…. There was, however, little discussion between the National Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies over appropriate proposals for sentence reports.
  • There were still too many cases without a sufficient Risk of Serious Harm screening, and where necessary a full analysis of the risk of serious harm, in place before allocation.
  • Investigation of Risk of Serious Recidivism scores showed that a number were inaccurate, when compared with our inspector’s calculation, and that a few cases were being allocated incorrectly. Some had misinterpreted the guidance and either ignored relevant information or placed it in the wrong section of the tool. This led to some cases being allocated to the Community Rehabilitation Companies when they should have been with the National Probation Service. There were no quality assurance processes in place to improve the completion of the Risk of Serious Recidivism tool.
  • Due to the demands to see service users quickly, there was a shift towards group induction, particularly within the Community Rehabilitation Companies. This was unpopular with a number of offender managers who felt that individual inductions resulted in better engagement. We found no evidence, however, to suggest that individual induction was more effective than group induction.
  • Most cases were assigned to an identified offender manager within one working day of sentence. Fewer than half of the cases we inspected, however, had their first appointments with their offender managers within five working days of sentence.
  • The Offender Assessment System likelihood of reoffending assessment was sufficient in just over half of cases. Sentence plans were not always completed in good time and did not always address the factors relating to offending, or wider diversity issues and barriers to engagement.
  • Many of the people supervised by a Community Rehabilitation Company had committed violent offences, or had been involved in domestic abuse. There were concerns about protecting children in a number of cases. Only two-thirds of Risk of Serious Harm screenings and half of full risk of harm analyses were sufficient. An effective risk management plan was in place in fewer than half of all relevant cases. Failure to assess accurately the risk of harm and then implement a plan to reduce it can lead to a focus on inappropriate work and to an increase in the harm an offender may pose.
  • In too many cases the level of risk of serious of harm was not being identified or satisfactorily addressed. The following practice example highlights the importance of effective assessment; the inspector commented:

“The assessment was not sufficient, the offender manager failed to identify relevant previous behaviour, for example, sexual activity with a child under the age of 13 years who became pregnant as a result. The CAS and RSR were also factually incorrect – missing the sexual offence, it was not until the new alleged offence of sexual activity with a girl aged 14 years became known did the offender manager look into exploring previous behaviour and found the previous incidents. There was no evidence of initial checks with the police or children’s services”.

  • We judged there was an appropriate priority accorded to the safety of current and potential victims by CRC staff in 60% of relevant cases. In too many cases, offender managers had not recognised or planned effectively to manage the issues concerning current or potential victims.
  • To breach a case, the Community Rehabilitation Companies must produce a breach pack and pass the case to the National Probation Service for prosecution. There are a number of timescales which have to be met and these should be recorded clearly on the nDelius system. Recording was not clear in half of the breach cases we inspected and this made it difficult to determine if the required timescales had been met.
  • While all NPS Local Delivery Units had processes in place to check if offenders were known to the relevant CRC, there appeared to be little consultation pre-sentence about suitable sentencing proposals. CRC staff recognised that the requirement to present an increasing number of reports on the day of sentence left little time for NPS report writers to liaise with CRC staff.
  • Some NPS staff expressed concerns that they were becoming less knowledgeable about the services and types of supervision provided through the CRCs and that this would lead to difficulties in making appropriate proposals. We found, however, that there was a clear proposal for an appropriate community sentence in nearly all the cases inspected.
  • Following assessment, we found that initial sentence planning was completed in time in just over half of the cases. Appropriate objectives were set in a similar number of cases. There had been a sufficient assessment of community factors and social support in two-thirds of those cases, and the same proportion had been signposted or referred to relevant providers.
  • We judged there was an appropriate priority accorded to the safety of current and potential victims by CRC staff in 60% of relevant cases. In too many cases, offender managers had not recognised or planned effectively to manage the issues concerning current or potential victims.

Now you have ploughed your way through this, you will see that the Inspectors are concerned primarily with process. I look forward to the day when they look at the services to see if they are any good.

November 10, 2015 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Privatisation, Probation

Michael Gove at the Howard League AGM

I was blown away by Michael Gove’s speech to the Howard League AGM.

It was not so much what he said, and I will come to that later, it was the principles upon which he will be basing his policies. He talked about redemption and opportunities, he talked about tempering justice with mercy, giving people a sense of possibility and hope. This is language I have never heard from any of the many justice secretaries I have worked with. The message for the public, political leaders and people delivering the criminal justice system is that it should be seen not as the route to damnation but as an interlude in a life that has been damaged and has created damage, with light and forgiveness at the end.

He is a hard-headed politician and of course, is no softie. He said that some people who commit crimes are moral actors and do make decisions in the full knowledge that what they do is wrong and harmful. He also said that many are not autonomous actors as they have emotional, moral and financial poverty. These people do not have the self-mastery to have benefited from school education and other opportunities. He said there is a huge spectrum of people in prisons.

His most poignant message was when he talked about children in care who end up in the penal system. He said that these children had not had the affection and the love that they deserve.

This moral framework for policy choices augurs well for decision-making in the future when hard choices will need to be made.

And yet, there were some items of concern in his speech. He re-floated the idea of closing Victorian prisons and building airy new prisons. I think this is a non-starter.

Firstly, it is not clear who owns the land on which the Victorian prisons sit and you can’t sell what you don’t own.

Secondly, it is not that the Victorian prisons are badly designed, they are just overcrowded. Oxford prison has been turned into a very swanky hotel so it is possible to make the buildings sanitary and functional and they are anyway quite beautiful. So the problem is not the buildings, it is the overcrowding.

Thirdly, which egg will come first? If he closes the Victorian prisons and reduces prison numbers what is the point of building expensive new prisons that will just encourage the courts to use them. If he builds new prisons before closing the Victorian jails, the new ones will fill up and then he will have both new and old.

I was encouraged that the Secretary of State responded to a question from the audience about reducing prison numbers positively. That is the way forward. It is sensible, it is safe and it is cost-effective.

November 5, 2015 · Frances Crook · 9 Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy, Howard League, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons, Public Services, Rehabilitation

The criminal courts charge must go

Emma (I am not using her full name to protect her identity), who is 32 years of age, admitted persistently loitering in the street for the purpose of prostitution. She had been arrested and taken to court. The magistrates in Coventry used a little-known section of the 2009 Policing and Crime Act to impose an ‘engagement and support order’.

The purpose of the order is clearly stated in official Home Office guidance:

The purpose of the order is to provide a penalty that is a more constructive option than a fine. Fining someone involved in street prostitution can have the counter-productive effect of providing a further reason to continue engaging in prostitution in order to pay the fine. Instead, this order will require the person involved in prostitution to attend three meetings with a named supervisor who will help the individual address the reasons for their involvement in prostitution with the aim of helping them find a route out of prostitution.

Fines have been used on women involved in prostitution for years but the obvious consequence was that they had to resort to selling themselves to raise the money to pay the fine. This merely resulted in a cat-and-mouse cycle of arrest, fine, prostitution.

This order requires the woman to attend three sessions with a supervisor in an attempt to help her move out of prostitution. The Home Office guidance says that welfare options should be attempted in place of criminal sanctions.

In Emma’s case, magistrates imposed a six-month engagement and support order but they also imposed the mandatory £150 criminal courts charge. This contradicted the purpose of the order as it is likely she will not have the means to pay the charge.

The Howard League has been campaigning to have the criminal court charge suspended immediately with a view to abolition. This case shows that the law is now in a right mess as courts are imposing orders whose purpose is mutually contradictory.

Women who have overwhelming welfare needs are being criminalised and having financial penalties imposed that will send them straight back to the streets.

The criminal courts charge must go.

November 2, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Rehabilitation, Sentencing, Women in the penal system

We shouldn’t turn homes into prisons

So far, the new Lord Chancellor has shown he has both a compassionate and hard-headed side to the choices he is making. He overturned the ban on sending books to prisoners, he cancelled the mega-jail for children, he cancelled the contract for supporting Saudi prisons and he abandoned the privatisation of fine collection. He is now faced with some big decisions.

The Treasury is about to announce the outcome of the spending review and the Howard League has submitted proposals that would help the Ministry of Justice cut up to 50 per cent of its prison budget over the coming few years. Whilst I am (always) optimistic that the charity’s suggestions will be taken on board, it is possible that Michael Gove will  be seduced by the enticements of technology or some of the more bizarre and inappropriate ideas being peddled by think tanks and private companies.

He visited Texas recently to see how the state has reduced the use of prison to save money. There are helpful lessons for political rhetoric coming from the Right on Crime movement in the United States, but there are pitfalls if we copy what they are doing without appreciating the differences between the two countries. Texas is busy inventing community sentences and drug treatment services. That is not required here as we still have an NHS, the remnants of a probation service and community addiction services.

There was a bizarre article in the Telegraph last week reporting a suggestion that some people would not be sent to prison but could instead have webcams installed in every room in their home as part of home detention. Apart from the obvious question as to who is going to look at this all day, the other question is whether it would include bedrooms and bathrooms?

It is tempting to bring the prison into the community, into people’s homes. But what is the point? If someone is safe to be in the community, they should be making some sort of amends for the harm done by crime. Merely containing people in their homes instead of prison is pointless. Unless, of course, you are one of the private security companies who will stand to make lots of money from it.

We can save money by closing prisons but we shouldn’t turn homes into prisons.

October 23, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags:  · Posted in: Government policy

Detached duty: The not-so-merry-go-round for prison officers

The Howard League has done a lot of work around the reduction in the number of prison officers. I have now done some more digging to find out about how it is still being managed through detached duty.

It all started with benchmarking, that management-speak mechanism for driving down costs by getting rid of staff, usually the most experienced because they are the most expensive. The spurious claim that private-sector prisons were cheaper to run than public-sector establishments was used to get rid of thousands of experienced officers. Late last year we published figures showing that the cut reached 40 per cent in some prisons. This left some prisons dangerously understaffed, with wings being closed down for days on end, resentment building to violence and people dying.

Something had to be done. Ingeniously, ministers started trumpeting that they were recruiting 1,700 new officers without admitting that they had caused the staff shortage in the first place but implying this was a new policy to improve prisons. Problems became immediately apparent. Recruitment was a problem in the South East, where salaries and conditions in rival sectors are better, and retention of the new recruits was dire. The latest figures I can find show that whilst people are being recruited, they are leaving at the same rate.

The consequence is that staff are shipped round the country on detached duty. I was in a prison recently and talked to a long serving prison officer who had been put on detached duty. He said he didn’t want to be in this prison, was missing his family, and was very resentful.

I have just had a response to a request for information about officers sent to work in Feltham, which holds both boys aged 15 to 17 and 18 to 21-year-olds, and Aylesbury, which holds 18 to 21-year-olds.

Feltham has had staff sent from Downview, Send, Coldingley, Verne and Cardiff. Cardiff is more than 100 miles away and is an adult male local prison. Coldingley is an adult male training prison, in expensive Surrey, that is experiencing recruitment and retention problems of its own and has had officers sent there on detached duty. This means that staff are on a merry-go-round from prison to prison, untrained and ill-equipped to deal with teenagers.

Aylesbury had staff sent there from:

  • Deerbolt (Durham)
  • Eastwood Park (Gloucestershire)
  • Kennet (Merseyside)
  • Wealstun (West Yorkshire)
  • Channings Wood (Devon)
  • Send (Surrey)
  • Holme House (Stockton on Tees)
  • Risley (Cheshire)
  • Guys Marsh (Dorset)
  • Exeter (Devon)
  • Leyhill (Gloucestershire)
  • Littlehey (Cambridgeshire)
  • The Mount (Hertfordshire)
  • Durham
  • Wayland (Norfolk)
  • Winchester (Hampshire)
  • Low Newton (women’s prison in Durham)
  • and the Isle of Wight.

At any one time over six months to March 2015 there were 10 staff from other prisons sent to work in Aylesbury with the teenagers.

This is destabilising both for the young prisoners and for the staff based there. It requires additional management as temporary staff need to know all sorts of practical information. Detached officers are away from their families for long periods. It is costly and wasteful.

There appears to be no end to this in sight. What a mess.

September 15, 2015 · Frances Crook · 6 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons, Privatisation, Uncategorized

Education in prison

Michael Gove has followed up his speech earlier in the summer with a written ministerial statement announcing a review of prison education, to be conducted by Dame Sally Coates.

It is particularly welcome that this review focuses on education in the adult prisons. Although there is often a focus on education for young people in prison, there are almost 40,000 adult men serving sentences of four years or more, including indeterminate sentences. Many will spend much of their day lying on their bunks doing nothing. It is a criminal waste of human potential.

The Secretary of State is therefore quite right to consider what can be done to improve prison education for this group of people. It is important that the review looks to foster a love of learning as well as teaching skills that may make prisoners more employable on release. Good work is done in patches but there is little continuity of education for prisoners over the length of their sentence. It will be interesting to see what the review can recommend to improve this.

My single proviso is an obvious one to anyone aware of the current state of the prisons. Any serious review of prison education will quickly come up against the principal barrier to improvement, which is the lack of time out of cell. Reduced budgets and staff shortages, coupled with a prison population that shows little sign of falling, conspire to make it difficult for many prisons to offer anything meaningful in terms of education and work. The huge drop in purposeful activity in recent years has been starkly outlined by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, in his latest annual report and in many individual inspection reports into category C prisons.

Solving this problem will require more radical action that addresses the long-term trend of ever-rising prison numbers. The Howard League has addressed this wider challenge in our recent submission to the government’s spending review.

September 8, 2015 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Howard League, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons, Rehabilitation, Work in prisons

The case of a boy who took a naked selfie

The BBC did a great job today highlighting the case of a boy who took a naked selfie that ended up being recorded as a crime by the police. But there is still some confusion about the police response and if he has a criminal record.

For the record. The boy has not got a criminal record. He was not arrested and he was not charged with an offence. The police were involved because the police are resident in the school, as is now common in many schools, and are routinely involved in meetings with children. There are several problems and unfortunate consequences of this.

Theresa May introduced new rules that the police have to record every crime. This because she was concerned that serious crimes involving, for example, domestic violence, were not being recorded and dealt with. As with all blanket responses that preclude professional discretion in decision making, the consequences can be unforeseen and damaging.

Whilst this boy has not been charged with an offence, what he did was recorded as a crime. His name will have been recorded on the police database, as will the girl’s name. Normally this will not go on the Police National Computer but will be recorded on the local force database. This means that should the boy get into trouble again on an unrelated issue, possibly several years later, the data will be available and could look bad. Supposing, for example, he is accused of shoplifting. The police will look back and see that he was involved in sex offending and will be much more likely to charge and the CPS to prosecute.

A second consequence was flagged up on the BBC report on the Today programme. Should he live an entirely blameless life, go to university and flourish and decide he wants to be a school teacher or play leader, an enhanced security check with the police will trigger this record. It is possible that it could show up many years later as a sex offence and he would not be able to pursue his chosen career. It does depend on the police officer’s discretion at that point and it may not be revealed, but it could be life-damaging.

I made a fuss on social media recently about a child living in a children’s home who was reported to the police by the staff for taking a choc ice. Criminalising children for things that pretty much all teenagers do at some point in their life is not helpful.

No one is saying that we shouldn’t respond to this sort of thing, of course we should. We should respond as good parents or teachers. Young people need and expect guidance into what is acceptable, what is legal, what is healthy.

Two things need to change so we stop irrational and damaging policing of teenage behaviour.

Police should not be embedded in schools. By all means invite the police into schools to give talks on particular issues or if something really serious kicks off, but teachers and parents should deal with children. Schools have been taking authority away from teachers and parents and giving it to the police and that is not healthy, necessary or cost effective.

Secondly, there needs to be discretion put back into policing. The secretary of state was right to identify that police were failing women victims of domestic and sexual violence, but this should be fixed with cultural change and keen management, not in prescriptive diktat.

September 3, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy, Police

Books For Prisoners: Today we are celebrating

From today, prison rules have been changed so that families and friends can send books to prisoners. This is the culmination of the Howard League campaign.

In addition the numerical limit on the number of books that can be held in-cell is also removed. Hitherto, prisoners were permitted to have a maximum of 12 books in their possession. For some prisoners this was acceptable, but for people who were studying or serving long sentences the limit was inhibiting their ability to progress and learn. As prisoners have increasingly limited access to libraries, possessing books in their cell has become a lifeline.

Two local bookshops have been added to the list of approved retailers and the Prisons Handbook can be sent to prisoners via Prisons Org UK.  Amazon is still not on the approved list.

The sending or handing in of audio books is no longer limited to prisoners with learning difficulties or disabilities.

Yoga mats have been added to the standardised facilities list and the entries for wristwatches, heart rate monitors and alarm clocks have been amended to reflect that digital displays are permitted (but not including ‘smart phone’ technology).  Straps are also permitted for heart rate monitors.

I don’t need to go over the arguments again. It is patently obvious to anyone with common sense that curtailing access to books, for anyone anywhere, is always retrograde. So today we are celebrating.

September 1, 2015 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Prisons

More on the criminal courts charge

The absurdity and unfairness of the criminal court charge seems to get worse every day. I hear from lawyers now that people have been given an absolute discharge even though it was obvious they were guilty. This was done as a way of avoiding imposing the charge.

This is what appears to be happening. People who face multiple charges for offences committed, for example several incidents of shop lifting, sometimes have the cases dealt with at different hearings. You can be tried for one offence, convicted and sentenced and the court charge imposed. The case brought to my attention involved a man who been sent to prison (I don’t know his crime). He was then brought back to court for an offence committed prior to the one that resulted in a prison sentence and the imposition of the mandatory court charge. It appears he was given an absolute discharge because the court would have to impose a second mandatory charge on  him had he been found guilty. The court recognised he was not in position to pay a second charge, and probably never would be. There was simply no point in imposing a charge that would never be recovered.

It seems that courts are finding ways to circumvent the criminal court charge when it is patently obvious people cannot pay.

A second case involved breach of a civil order. The man was given an absolute discharge. Without a conviction, the victim surcharge is not imposed nor is a cost order.

When ordinary people find things are unfair, they are quite right to challenge and even to refuse to comply. It appears the courts are doing just that.

August 27, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Campaigns